It’s been a rough few weeks for Big Sugar in the United States. First, Dr Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that soda and sugar-sweetened beverages “play a particular role in the obesity epidemic”.
Then the American Heart Association dramatically reduced their recommendation on safe levels of sugar consumption. They suggested an adult male should eat no more added sugar than is contained in a can of soft drink, women may only have two thirds of a can and children a third or less per day.
The New York City Department of Health then jumped on the bandwagon, releasing its “Are you pouring on the pounds” campaign in subway stations all over the Big Apple. The posters depict human fat being poured out of a soft drink bottle and end with the slogan “Don’t Drink Yourself Fat”.
Then, up pop New York City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, Kelly Brownell, an obesity expert at Yale University in Connecticut and a bunch of other health experts, demanding that the US tax soft drinks to fund the health effects of their consumption.
And if all that wasn’t enough, some actual science happened as well. Dr Richard Johnson and his team from the University of Colorado reported on a study they had been conducting on the relationship between fructose and high blood pressure. Fructose is a simple sugar which is one half of sucrose (table sugar). They found that if they gave men a 200g daily dose of fructose for two weeks they increased their blood pressure.
At the start of the study, 19% of the participants were diagnosed as suffering metabolic syndrome (a condition made up of several conditions including excess weight around the midriff, high blood pressure, raised blood sugar and raised levels of blood fats known as triglycerides). At the end of the study (just two weeks later), this figure had more than doubled to 44%. In addition to the increase in blood pressure, there were also rises in triglyceride levels, insulin levels and measures of insulin resistance, as well as a lowering in ‘healthy’ HDL cholesterol levels.
You’d need to drink two, two-litre bottles of soft drink a day to get 200g of fructose, so it was more than twice the amount the average American consumes. But in just two weeks it had caused considerable harm indeed.
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On the same day, a joint study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research reported that even at the levels currently being consumed, soft drink was doing serious harm. The researchers interviewed 42,000 Californians. They found that 24% of adults drink one or more soft drinks a day, and these adults are 27% more likely to be overweight than their peers who didn’t.
In the face of this constant barrage, Big Sugar has had no choice but to hit back. Today they’ve launched a co-ordinated national newspaper and television campaign putting their side of the story.
Full page advertisements made up to look like news stories declared “High-fructose corn syrup was acquitted today amidst a flood of public apologies by consumers who had singled the corn sweetener out as a unique cause of obesity”. And TV ads ran a similar line accusing the consumer of unfairly blaming corn sugar for his weight problem. High Fructose corn sugar is what Americans use to sweeten soda instead of sugar. It’s functionally equivalent to sugar and is about 55% fructose.
Corn refiners are sick of being blamed for the obesity epidemic and the ads point out that HFCS is no worse than sugar or honey. Which is perfectly true, but meaningless when all three contain similar amounts of fructose. It’s the equivalent of declaring their products to be (say) asbestos free. Also a great marketing message, but similarly uninformative.
Meanwhile, juice maker Welch’s, soft drink maker PepsiCo Inc, the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, McDonald’s Corp and Burger King Holdings Inc have formed a group called ‘Americans against Food Taxes’ to lobby against the proposed soda tax. It’s clearly panic button time.
Putting aside for a minute the inanity of fighting about whether sugar is worse than HFCS or the pros and cons of sin taxes, the point is that there is a significant public debate going on across the pond. The science is being discussed in daily newspapers, dramatic limitations are being recommended and the politicians and universities are in the debate up to their ying-yangs.
Here in Sugarland exactly none of the above is happening. Our Heart Foundation endorses high sugar snacks for kids. Our national healthy eating guidelines recommend levels of consumption that are at least twice the American recommendations. And our public health messages are stuck in the low fat 1960s with barely a mention of sugar. You won’t see Big Sugar running desperate (and stupid) TV ads here. They don’t need to. There is no public concern. There is no debate. And there is no PR problem. Wake up Australia.